Tom Cruise Controls the Weekend with Oblivion

The 50-year-old star proves his continued clout with this sci-fi epic

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Universal Pictures

He might not use his living-room couch as a trampoline when he hears the news, but Tom Cruise has to be pleased with the numbers for his new film Oblivion. The futurist drama, in which the 50-year-old Top Gun plays a pilot on desolate Planet Earth searching for secrets to his past, won the weekend by earning $38.2 million at North American theaters, according to the preliminary estimate of its distributor, Universal Pictures. If that number holds when the final figures are issued Monday, Oblivion will have registered the strongest first weekend of any non-franchise science-fiction movie since Christopher Nolan’s Inception in July 2010.

[UPDATE: According to Monday's "actual" figures, Oblivion earned $37.05 million, or about 3% below the Sunday forecast. That was still enough to beat the openings for such post-Inception sci-fi movies as Cowboys & Aliens ($36.4 million), Battle Los Angeles ($35.6 million) and Super 8 ($35.5 million). Of the weekend's 10 top-grossing movies, only The Place Beyond the Pines had an actual figure, $4.9 million, significantly higher than its Sunday estimate.]

Hollywood handicappers knew that Oblivion, the only big new movie, would finish at No. 1. But in determining how much money it would earn, they were baffled. As Laremy Legel of Rope of Silicon noted on Thursday, “the two main tracking sources are a whopping $30 million apart on their calls for the weekend,” with ReelSource.com predicting a blockbusterish $56 million and MTC (Major Theater Chain) forecasting a timid $26 million. Today’s reported number more or less splits the difference, and Universal will take it — especially since Oblivion has already earned $112 million in 10 days abroad, for a quick worldwide stash of $150.2 million.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Oblivion)

The foreign market has long been Cruise’s vault; The Last Samurai, Knight & Day, Mission: Impossible 4 and even the War-on-Terror talkathon Lions for Lambs all earned at least 70% of their total take abroad. The star’s own Mission: Quite Difficult has been to hold on to his stateside fans in the face of his age, tabloid-headline divorce, quirky behavior and proselytizing for Scientology. Given those deadweights, he did OK with Oblivion. Opening on 3,738 theaters, 300 in IMAX, the film scored the star’s strongest opening, in inflation-adjusted dollars, except for the first three Mission: Impossible episodes and  Steven Spielberg‘s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds.

Oblivion’s opening would have been higher if the movie had been able to charge more for a 3-D version (Cruise has yet to star in a 3-D picture) and if much of the U.S. hadn’t stayed home Friday night to watch the resolution of a more incendiary drama, the apprehension of the surviving suspect in the Boston bombings. (Boston-area movie houses, which represent about 1% of the nation’s theaters, reopened for business that evening.) No surprise, then, that Oblivion’s Saturday gross ($14.9 million) was higher than the combined revenue for the Thursday-night and all-day-Friday showings.

(READ: Jess Cagle’s 2002 profile of Tom Cruise)

The film’s demographics — 57% of the customers were male, a lopsided 74% age 25 or above — suggest that Tom Terrific is no longer a teen-girl’s heartthrob. And for a movie that cost anywhere from $120 million to $160 million to produce, the CinemaScore rating of early attendees can’t be encouraging: a less-than-par B-minus. The star may need a last-minute rescue from some higher power — say, the young Tom Cruise, who used to be box-office gold.

In the wide swath of non-Cruise cinema that might be called “indie,” three movies opened just outside the top 10. Home Run, a Christian-themed drama about a major leaguer with substance-abuse problems who coaches a little league team — call it The Good News Bears  earned $1.6 million at 381 theaters for 12th place. Making nearly as much ($3.4 million) at about half the venues (188 screens) was Filly Brown, a music-industry inspirational that co-starred the late Cal-Mex thrust Jenni Rivera. Three slots down, at No. 16, was Rob Zombie‘s well-reviewed witchcraft stew The Lords of Salem, which took in a more modest $622,000 at 354 theaters. None of these three opened in New York City or Los Angeles; each tapped a niche market (evangelical, Latino, pre-DVD horror); all proved it’s still possible to swim outside either the mainstream or the art-house mini-stream.

(READ: Corliss on the Christian evangelical hit Fireproof)

In the more recognizable artsy vein, The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance’s interior epic headlined by hunks-du-jour Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, expanded from about 500 screens to about 1,500 to inhabit sixth place with a $4.7 million gross. Other star-laden specialties had less success: the Redford-Christie-Sarandon-Nolte-LaBeouf The Company You Keep cadged $425,000 at 84 theaters, while Danny Boyle’s dazzly thriller Trance, with marquee names of lower wattage (James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel) managed only $400,000 on 443 screens. The Redford film is on hold for now, the Boyle nearly kaput. François Ozon’s meta-mystery In the House, the one foreign-language debut, earned $35,200 at three venues for the weekend’s best per-screen average.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as collected by The Hollywood Reporter:

1. Oblivion, $38.2 million, first weekend
2. 42, $18 million; $54.1 million, second week
3. The Croods, $9.5 million; $154.9 million, fifth week
4. Scary Movie 5, $6.3 million; $22.9 million, second week
5. G.I. Joe Retaliation, $5.8 million; $111.2 million, fourth week
6. The Place Beyond the Pines, $4.7 million; $11.4 million, fourth week
7. Olympus Has Fallen, $4.5 million; $88.1 million, fifth week
8. Evil Dead, $4.1 million; $48.54 million, third week
9. Jurassic Park, $4 million; $38.5 million, third week of rerelease
10. Oz the Great and Powerful, $3 million; $223.8 million, seventh week

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